Textile votary Janhavi Kulkarni reminisces how every time a vegetable vendor or a maid would come to her Dharwad home in Karnataka, she would look with wonder at the vibrant fabric they used for their blouses and cholis.
Later, while studying for her textile degree in Mumbai, she would try to source the very fabric— Guledgudda or Khunn—but in vain.
“I found just one store that had one realm of the fabric,” she says. With her curiosity piqued, Janhavi decided to explore the rich heirloom traditions of Karnataka and revive the dying art.
“I was clear that I must make a difference to the weaver community,” she says. She is now working on a project to make the traditionally dark-hued fabric in pastel shades and hopes to find newer markets internationally.
Tracing its roots back to some 4,000 years, the bright-hued Guledgudda or Khunn used to be a favoured fabric for women in Karnataka as well as some parts of Marathwada and Vidarbha in Maharashtra.
The cotton or cotton-silk fabric is traditionally only 31 inches long and comes with a six-inch border on either side, thus making it challenging to use.
Maybe this is one of the reasons that pushed the fabric out of favour. With hardly any demands, the looms used for weaving this delicate brocade material began shutting down, till a years-old tradition stood at the brink of extinction.
Though the cards were stacked against her, Janhavi—encouraged by her husband Anand—decided to start Kale Nele in November 2012 in Bengaluru.
“Kale Nele means a shelter for all forms of arts and crafts. The indigenous fabrics/arts and crafts and embroideries of this country always inspire me to reinterpret them.”
The first task she tackled was convincing weavers to go back to their traditional weaving.
She realised that the fabric has to be used in more ways than one to be able to sustain further.
“We attempted to reinterpret Khunn and create a variety of products, including cushions, runners, torans, hangings, bags, totes, iPad covers, and more. The eco-system built around Kale Nele touches many lives, including the weavers of Guledgudda, the ladies who hand-dye yarns in the region of Gadag, the homemakers of Dharwad and Hubli who embroider Kasuti panels, tailors and karigars from Bihar settled in Bengaluru and the pillow makers of Shivajinagar in Bengaluru,” she says.
Janhavi credits the furnishing brand Yamini in Bengaluru to set her on the path to entrepreneurship. She was able to explore the richness of Indian textiles, from the bright cottons of Cannanore, the elegance of Maheshwari, the mesmerising Ikats of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, to the rustic tribal weaves of the North East and the joy of Kutch. “I learnt more than design. I realised that the success of a retail organisation depended on how it managed its supply chain and its costs. I learnt the importance of innovating,” she says. With all this knowledge under her belt, she was more than ready to venture out on her own.
Working with the weavers in Guledgudda over several years, Janhavi decided to move a step further and make an effort at weaving saris. “It was a task to get the weavers to increase the width of the fabric from the standard 31 inches, but once it was done it became a big hit. It took over two years to increase the loom width and now 1,500-1,800 saris are woven per month,” she says. Her initiative has also inspired the neighbouring villages such as Kamatagi, Ramadurg and Shirur to return to weaving. She also encourages her karigars to weave dupattas on the loom and has merged Khunn and Ilkal to make saris.